One Stunning Island
Editor's note: "Through a Screen Darkly," a monthly commentary by CT Movies critic Jeffrey Overstreet,explores films old and new, as well as relevant themes and trends in cinema. The column continues the journey begun in Overstreet's book of the same name.
A certain hunger sets in after film critics have spent the summer chasing down all of the big-budget action movies and sophomoric comedies.
This summer was no exception. We thrilled to the latest special effects (Iron Man), laughed at flashes of inspired audacity (Tropic Thunder), and threw out the trash (Space Chimps, Fly Me to the Moon, The House Bunny). And we rejoiced over a couple of blockbusters that proved to be unexpectedly meaningful (The Dark Knight and WALLE).
But between May and August, our big-screen treasure hunt feels more like a search for needles in a field of haystacks. The promise of autumn turns our attention to movies whose names might be inscribed on Oscars instead of on Happy Meal toys. And yet even there, it's a challenge to find films that will last, movies that minister not only to the senses and the intellect but also to the heart.
I just found one of those films, a new favorite that's inspired me more than anything I've seen in months.
It's called The Island. And I wouldn't have discovered it if it weren't for something called Film Movement—but more on that in a moment.
The Island—in Russian with English subtitles—begins in 1942. Anatoly is a Russian naval officer cowering and groveling at the feet of the Nazis who have captured him. They demand he reveal the hiding place of his commanding officer, Captain Tikhon, and he fearfully obeys.
What happens next is a wartime nightmare. A gunshot. And then a series of explosions that will echo in Anatoly's memory, tormenting his conscience for the rest of his life.
Fast forward to 1976.
Anatoly's become a grizzled priest, shoveling coal into the furnace at a monastery on the edge of cold, forbidding White Sea. Half-mad, he huddles beside the inferno, his dark memories tormenting him like a murder of vengeful crows.
Sounds depressing, doesn't it? The Island, a 2006 film by Pavel Lounguine—only recently distributed in the U.S. on DVD by Film Movement—follows in a grand tradition of somber Russian literature, raising tough questions about the consequences of sin and the possibility of redemption.
But don't let that stop you. Subtle comedy sparks and twitches throughout this chilly monastery. The solemn priests, while they pray and serve God with sincere conviction, are an amusing bunch—all furrowed brows and trailing beards. Anatoly's peculiar pranks, prophecies, and small acts of rebellion annoy them like itches that get worse with scratching.
Is there method to Anatoly's madness? Is he serving, or antagonizing, the Almighty?
You'll have to see for yourself.
The Island is one of the most provocative parables to reach American moviegoers in years. Christians suspicious of foreign fare may be pleasantly surprised by this film's bold depiction of Christian faith. (And some will rejoice to see a film in which a priest takes a firm stand against abortion.)
Visually enthralling and full of memorable performances, The Island won six Nikas (Russia's version of the Oscars) in 2006, and a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007. Pyotr Mamonov is riveting as Anatoly; his performance makes you imagine what Daniel Day-Lewis might be doing in twenty years.
Perhaps the most interesting fact of all: Nora Fitzgerald (The Washington Post) notes, "After it opened in Moscow, priests and bishops began to bless the film, often standing in prayer outside theaters."